When it comes to this learned skill, we are all in the same overcrowded boat. It doesn’t matter what position you have or how much money you have or what corporate title you have. As speakers and communicators, we are all subject to the same influences. We all have some of the same strengths, weaknesses and anxieties. This blog is about how we can play to our strengths, minimize our weaknesses and manage our anxieties.
It's also about the choices we make as speakers in the business world – starting with the biggest choice of all. Which character are we going to play when speaking to employees, colleagues, clients and total strangers? Our authentic selves – the person people close to us know, love and respect. Or, will we play a ‘presentation’ version of ourselves, which gets watered-down and over-managed to the point that we are unrecognizable.
We have all seen ourselves or our colleagues in a business speaking situation – wrapped in an invisible presentation straitjacket with our head down in notes or slides. Our real personality gets subsumed by an overarching desire to ‘get it right’ and our authentic self starts to disappear. It’s almost as if we said to ourselves before the talk - “at worst, I’ll be boring, but at least I won’t make a mistake and look or sound foolish in front of my peers”. That fear of failure is what keeps us from showing our authentic selves when speaking. That fear of looking foolish keeps us from succeeding as speakers.
Being an effective speaker involves taking risks. That’s the big problem. If you’re high up in an organization, you want to minimize risks in speaking situations for fear of hurting the brand by saying something incorrect, untoward or just plain stupid. Let’s face it – in a world with a billion self-appointed paparazzi with cell-phone cameras, being careful with your words isn’t such a bad idea. Go ask Howard Dean, or Don Imus, or George Allen, or John Kerry or Prince Harry if they’d like to take back a few words if they could. Say the wrong thing and your words fly around the internet, completely out of context, defining your character for billions of people who have never met you - a tremendously inhibiting factor for speakers, even in the corporate world.
If you’re just starting out in an organization or working your way up, this fear of failure exists too, in a slightly different way. You may want to appear ‘professional’ to your bosses and your clients. We all want to look, act, walk and talk like ‘professionals’. Sometimes in our zeal to do so though, we can overdo it and suppress our personality and natural way of communicating. We can come across as dull, uninteresting and ineffectual, when we are anything but that in real life. As a result, we fail to make an impact in business settings because of our fears – of making a mistake – of looking foolish – or of not looking ‘professional’.
Succumbing to those fears is what makes our true authentic selves disappear. As a result, we don’t connect with our clients or our audiences the way we want to or the way we should.
So what can you do to overcome this obstacle and stop 'presenting' and start 'talking'. Let's take a practical business situation as an example of what you can do:
Let's say you're a CEO (or any senior leader) talking to your employees in a Town Hall setting. You walk up to the podium prepared to wade through a 22-slide, 45-minute brain dump on the 2nd quarter followed by, "any questions", followed by a planted question from the CFO, a canned answer from you, and a stampede to the cocktail party or the car. Ten minutes into your 'book report' the audience would like to shoot themselves and you'd probably like to join them. Here's an alternative:
You walk in the hall. You shake hands with some people you don't know in the first row and thank them for coming (you had pre-placed your direct reports in the back row as observers). As you walk by the lectern, where everyone expects you to stay out of habit or speaker anxiety, you drop off your notes, then you keep walking to the center of the hall, directly in front of the first row. You plant your feet about hip width apart (very important to keep you from wandering) and you give a 3-5 minute leadership message including an icebreaker (if appropriate), some context, a bit of framing, a theme for the talk and your intent for the day as in, "I'd like you all to walk out of here today with..." I call this part - THE HOOK. After you've hooked them, you walk back to the lectern to do your heavy lifting with the slide show.
Instead of reading the slides though, you simply look at some 'alive' faces in the audience (one at a time), frame the main message on each slide, and talk to them about what it means. If the theme is market share, think about taking a step to the side of the podium (with your back-up clip mike already attached) and say "let me tell what I mean by taking market share in this environment". That signals to your audience that it's story time and you rebreak the invisible 4th wall that usually exists between you and the audience. The very same wall you shattered during your leadership message at the outset. It's keep you and your audience connected. Remember, the only medium in the room that matters is your connectivity with your audience. The slides aren't the star - you are! They didn't hire a PowerPoint Pusher, they hired a leader.
Then, when you finally get to the last slide, go back to your leader spot dead center in front of the first row, set your feet again (very important) and give a 3-5 minute leadership wrapup. I call it THE HAMMER. You need to hit the theme again with a sledgehammer and place in their minds the critical ideas you want them thinking about and talking about afterward.
Then, instead of the 'plant' question from Vinny the COO or Mary the CFO, you open your arms with a simple welcoming double open-hand gesture and say "what questions do you have for me"? If you get silence, you whip out a 'prime the pump' question (from the mental inventory you prepared before the talk) and say something like, "what do you think our biggest opportunity is right now?" Like all great leaders, you want to end up your talk by focusing on the future, not the past (all great leaders deal in optimism). That may, or may not, trigger a 20-minute back and forth with your audience. If it does, people will leave the hall feeling they saw the 'real' you. Not the artificial, disconnected, 'slide reader' version of you who showed up last quarter and bored the heck out of everybody.
Best advice - for the rest of your career as a leader, STOP PRESENTING and START TALKING. Occasionally, divorce yourself from the podium. It's a prop, not a crutch. And once, just to feel what it's like to walk the wire with no net, leave the slides on your desk and walk into the room with nothing - and just talk. You may end up liking that style so much that Vinny or Mary will get the duller-than-dishwater slide show delegated to them - where it belongs.
Now, this doesn't just happen. If you try this, you will be breaking 'speaker scar tissue' that has been there for years. It takes planning, preparation and practice. Invest that time once though, and then go succeed in the execution, and every talk after that gets easier as you go along because you now have a process to repeat.
- Every talk has one theme - find it before you begin to write
- Nail the HOOK and HAMMER and the rest will be easy
- Practice out loud - for your spouse, a friend or the family dog
- Practice to a mirror - so you can see what they see, or don't see
- Practice in the hall - so you can make it your 'home court'
- Enjoy yourself when you talk - as your 'real' self - they will too!
The Global Coach